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Iraq: International Terrorist Abu Nidal Dead At 65, Reportedly By Suicide

  • Don Hill

Palestinian radical Abu Nidal, who reportedly committed suicide in Iraq last week, was a terrorist who waged war not only on Israel and the West but also on fellow Palestinians he regarded as insufficiently bold. These included the leadership of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organization, with whom he was once allied. He died at age 65 as he had lived, violently and shrouded in mystery. RFE/RL reviews his life and explores the circumstances of his death.

Prague, 21 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- He was born Sabri al-Banna 65 years ago in Jaffa. But he has been known worldwide since the 1970s as Abu Nidal: implacable terrorist, killer, hired gun, and leader-founder of the Fatah Revolutionary Council.

Now he is dead, reportedly a suicide, in Iraq's capital Baghdad.

The circumstances of Nidal's end are murky and raise doubts over whether he in fact committed suicide. The Palestinian newspaper "Al-Ayyam" last week was the first to announce his death, in an article that said he died of multiple gunshot wounds. Later news reports described his body as "bullet-riddled."

An Arabic-language daily in London, "Asharq Al Awsat," described a shoot-out in which Nidal was downed by four bullets.

But yesterday, Iraq's secret-service chief, Taher Jalil al-Habbush, said Nidal shot himself in the mouth as Iraqi authorities prepared to detain him for interrogation.

In a press conference today in Baghdad, al-Habbush added details. "When we found out that Sabri al-Banna was in Baghdad, we informed the high authorities and an order was issued to take him to court. He was told that he had entered the country illegally and that he should accompany the authorities to investigate this issue further. At first he agreed. Then he asked security [officers] for permission to change his clothes. He closed the door behind him and then the men heard a shot. It was confirmed that he had shot himself in the mouth using a pistol. He was transferred to the hospital and, after eight hours in intensive care, he died," al-Habbush said.

Eason Jordan, chief news executive of the U.S.-based Cable News Network (CNN), yesterday quoted a "very senior" Iraqi official, whom he did not name, as saying that Nidal had covertly entered Iraq a year ago from Iran. Jordan's anonymous source said authorities had placed Nidal under house arrest, but discovered recently that he had been conspiring with Kuwait and other foreign interests against Saddam Hussein's government.

At the press conference today, al-Habbush said agents learned more about Nidal's entry into Iraq after the shooting. "After this incident, we discovered that Sabri al-Banna entered the country with this Yemeni passport using this picture [at this point, al-Habbush exhibited the passport]. We found several entry visas in his passport: one for Jordan, one for Yemen, and one for Iran via al-Mundhariya, [Iraq]," al-Habbush said.

Al-Habbush said the agents also found forged documents, weapons, and other equipment that seemed to suggest that Nidal had remained an active terrorist. "We found three passports. We believe they were forged. We shall investigate with the help of the Jordanian authorities. We also found forged identity papers, including various photographs attached to various names. After a thorough search of his house, we also found light weapons and pistols and eight booby-trapped suitcases, a large group of passports and codes. We studied these codes and found they were related to some state that financed him with a certain amount of money for this purpose," al-Habbush said.

Professor and author Paul Wilkinson, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at Scotland's University of St. Andrews, has over the years amassed a dossier of data on Nidal and his organization. He said the suicide story gains some credence from the fact that Nidal was ill with leukemia and may have been low in spirits.

But, Wilkinson said, unless more becomes known, other theories are equally plausible. "One possibility would be that he, having fallen out with so many of the members of his organization over the years, got involved in another internecine feud and got killed by one of the people who felt particularly bitter against him. He had lots of enemies," Wilkinson said.

Wilkinson said also that there is a small possibility that Saddam's regime came to consider Nidal an embarrassment and eliminated him to send a signal that the government no longer chooses to harbor his brand of terrorism. "Again that, you know, may seem to have a certain plausibility, but I'm not convinced by the reasoning, because in the past, certainly, Saddam has found it useful to have some client terrorist groups [on] hand. And Abu Nidal obviously had a lot of affinity with Iraq," Wilkinson said.

Nidal's death came unexpectedly, even for a man who had twice been sentenced to death. Jordan tried him in absentia last December for the 1994 assassination of a Jordanian diplomat and sentenced him to die. In the 1980s, Yasser Arafat also had a court sentence him to be executed.

Sabri al-Banna was born to a prosperous citrus-plantation owner whose family was forced into exile after the establishment of Israel in 1948. The family settled in Nablus in the West Bank. But Sabri moved to Saudi Arabia where he worked as a technician.

There he began the journey that transformed him into terrorist Abu Nidal, a name that means "father of the struggle." He joined Yasser Arafat's Fatah but he broke with Arafat in the early 1970s.

He then formed the Fatah Revolutionary Council, which also often came to be referred to as the ANO, Abu Nidal's Organization, and led it on a terror spree that spanned a number of years.

This included a 1985 attack on the check-in desks of Israeli and American airlines in Rome that killed 19 people and injured more than 100. Earlier, he attacked and wounded the Israeli ambassador to London, Shlomo Argov. Israel subsequently invaded Lebanon in 1982. Among his Arab targets was Issam Sartawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization who initiated contact with Israel officials.

Over the years, he had bases in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, three states associated with international terrorism. But followers of his career describe him as a loner who did not maintain consistent relations with any outside entity.